Life on the edge: demand for tasty cliff-top herb piles pressure on Cornish foragers

 

It is the new vegetable of the moment, beloved of gourmet chefs – but harvesting it is a precarious business.

Rock samphire, the tasty plant that only grows on the edge of sea cliffs, is undergoing a major revival at British restaurants.

But for the handful of foragers that harvest the specialist ingredient, the appetites of fine diners mean ever more treacherous sorties on to the cliff ledges where the plant grows.

Julia Schofield, owner of Cornish Rock Samphire, one of the country's few rock samphire suppliers, said that demand for the vegetable was up by 50 per cent in the past year – with the result that she has had to venture to more precarious parts of the cliff near Porthleven where she harvests the crop.

"If we don't have enough on our plot, we go out on to the places on the cliff where we know it's profuse and sometimes it's a bit risky," she said. "It grows right at the edge and the best bits are always halfway down the cliffs. We don't scale the cliffs but this rise in demand will mean we'll have to go out foraging more often."

Rock samphire has benefited from the huge popularity of marsh samphire, the salty vegetable often used to accompany fish. Marsh samphire, or Salicornia europaea, grows in salt marshes and is prevalent in East Anglia. It is now on sale in most supermarkets. Waitrose reported a 16 per cent year-on-year increase in sales of the vegetable since it began stocking it in 2009.

It has been popular among chefs keen to cash in on the current vogue for foraged food.

Rock samphire, or Crithmum maritimum, is an altogether rarer delicacy, as different to the marsh samphire as "carrots and cauliflowers", Ms Schofield said, but even top chefs still confuse the two.

Demand has grown in the past year, with Westcountry Fruit Sales, Ms Schofield's wholesaler, reporting that it sold 10 kilos to chefs and caterers in the past year, compared to none just five years ago.

"It has a very unusual taste, somewhere between celery and rosemary," Ms Schofield said. "It was a large part of people's diets around coastlines and became popular in Victorian times, but so much of it was shipped in brine to London that it mostly died out."

It is even mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear, when Edgar, standing on a cliff edge, tells his blind father: "Halfway down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!"

Ms Schofield said that although it was becoming more popular, rock samphire could never enter the supermarkets.

"We sell it at the door at 100g for £4. There's no way it could be in supermarkets, we couldn't produce enough," she said.

"The Victorians tried to grow it in gardens but it never worked. You can't commercialise it – it has to be hand-picked, hand-washed and you can't grow it inland, it needs salt air and it needs to be bashed by the sea because only then does it grow the long roots that gives it flavour."

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